An Exploration of Love, Race, Agency, Privilege and Pain
My 19 year old stepson and I were sitting at the table. He had arrived from the big city to my much smaller one to visit. We developed a relationship that transcended my relationship with his father. We would on occasion do brunch and on this particular trip, he was coming to hang-out with me, his white step-mom, and my white extended family to attend a predominantly white hockey game.
He is my son. We are not blood related, but when I first met him at the awkward age of 13, I knew him immediately. He was a doubter, rational, quick yet quiet and sensitive. He was a kindred spirit. We understood each other and I accepted my role as stepmother. We built our own relationship, one that was solidified when I insisted he sleep in my quarters when he contracted malaria during our visit to Senegal.
This particular visit came not so many months, perhaps even weeks, following the murder of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. As we sat in my dining room for dinner prior to the game, we discussed the news. My son said, “ I can’t stand cops.” I stopped. I have worked with many police officers, many of whom are kind and respectful. I have also met with those who are aggressive and who see their jobs as a covenant to “lock them up” rather than being officers of peace.
I asked him, “ Can you explain?” He identified instances of harassment, of being stopped simply because he was walking home from work past 10pm. He cited times where he and his friends felt harassed and he ended with, “ I don’t trust them.” The killing of Oscar Grant in Oakland, CA had happened just a few short years prior.
I understood the countless names of victims of police violence that my son could use as examples to support his argument. I acknowledged the legitimacy of his claims and I followed up with, “Be careful not to judge all cops with that lens, I’ve worked with many good people.” We didn’t talk about solutions or how he felt, we talked about what we thought, with an intellectual discourse that reserved emotion and relied on logic.
We finished our dinner and headed out to to attend our hockey game. We quickly donned our beanies and rushed out the door. I was raised in the inner city so I knew shortcuts and side streets that would bring us directly onto a street flooded with lights that had free parking only two blocks from the arena.
The side street was winter dark with many apartments and had a tendency for pedestrians to cross haphazardly. I was driving slowly, about 25 mph, which was the speed limit. As we neared the corner that would bring us into the city center, a cop car going the opposite direction shone a light into my very middle class mom car and passed us slowly.
As we continued, in my rear view mirror, I saw the police car swing around aggressively and come behind us with lights flashing. I pulled over. We were now a block away from apartments. I looked around and noticed we were on a block occupied by auto shops and closed businesses. I kept my hands on the wheel.
The officers approached us slowly, one officer on either side of my car. I rolled down my window. “Where are you headed?” one officer asked. To which I responded, “The arena.” He inquired why I was on this street, when the main street was a few blocks over. I stuttered that I wanted to come out on a particular street for parking. Instead of speaking to me further, identifying the cause for the stop, the officer on the other side of the car tapped the passenger side window where my son sat. My son rolled down his window. The officer asked him, “Do you have an ID?” To which my son responded, “Yes, may I ask why you are asking me for it?” The officer replied, “I said, get your fucking ID.” My son began to protest at which point I asked, “Excuse me, what is going on? I am the driver.”
The police officer barked, “Ma’m you need to be quiet!” I said, “I don’t understand…”The officer on my side of the vehicle gently interrupted and said, “ Ma’am may I see your Driver License?” I pulled out my license and gently told my son to show the other officer his ID, as the one police officer took my ID to run it. The frustration on the part of my son was palpable as he handed the officer his ID while cogently arguing that this was ridiculous and out of bounds. He was a passenger in a vehicle with his mom and he was still being harassed.
The next words out of the officer’s mouth immediately sent me spiraling into fight or flight mode. He sneered while mockingly asking, “Have you ever been arrested or fingerprinted?” Despite having stared at the barrel of a gun, having laughed when being hit, and having responded to a multitude of violent community crises, situations where I held my place with calm, this was different.
My beautiful mixed-race-let’s be honest-my black son, my kind, even-tempered, never-been-in-trouble son was being demeaned and spoken to in a tone that dripped with dismissive disgust.
Perhaps my emotions shouldn’t have been different from any other report of over-policing and racial profiling, but this was my son and my mind was flooded with emotion as I assessed the situation. There are no other witnesses. There are only closed businesses. My son is not deferring. They see his dreadlocks and beanie. Oh God, he is wearing a hoodie. The officer is an asshole. His hand is on his holster. The questions that screamed in my mind were, “What will happen if they make him get out of the car? How will I protect him? What if the worst thing I could imagine is about to happen?”
My son, while not aggressive, held himself and his rights with pride, he spoke with intelligence and grace, in a way that would make any white mother of her white child proud. I realized that my black son’s remarkable dignity at this moment could be his undoing. This officer wanted compliance and my son to grovel.
I interjected, “What is this about! I am the driver. Why am I being pulled over? Why are you asking these questions?” The other officer, having returned from the patrol car, echoed his partner’s phrase, “Ma’am have you ever been arrested or fingerprinted? To which I responded, “yes.” There was a brief surprised pause. Then, with my voice quivering with as much fear as anger I said, “ I have to be fingerprinted for clearance, I work for the local government.”
The tension changed, the power shifted. The officer handed me back my license and said, “We pulled you over for the item hanging from the mirror,”pointing to a minute, handwoven, less than 2 inch diameter raffia basket. It had been hanging in my car for 5 years, a gift from a friend. It had been dangling without notice when I had been pulled over for speeding 4 years prior. I yanked the basket, tearing it from my rearview mirror.
They backed away, muttering, “Have a nice evening.” trailing off with something about my taillight. Had I been in a region other than my brainstem, I’d have taken at least the badge number of the officer on my side of the vehicle.
We went on to the hockey game. I told my family what happened and they were shocked. My son chalked it up to just another event.
My anger was palpable for weeks. I spoke about it at work. I spoke about it in a voluntary equity training that saw only myself and one other person attend from my department. I was labeled as angry. When I would give feedback about systems, it was often chalked up to my bias because my husband is black, of course forgetting that I had, in my youth in the organization, advocated for implicit bias training while being engaged to a white man. I made the mistake of openly challenging systemic cultures, of pointing out microaggressions, before the word was commonplace.
We have seen countless more black and brown men, women and children fall victim to over-policing and police violence since 2014, most recently this week. I have had many years to explore that anger and frustration that someone with my disposition rarely feels. It has sometimes been replaced with sadness, but it remains. The greatest anger, I realized, was not at the system, it was at myself.
I had been an advocate for equity and justice before this event. I share the experience of poverty and sometimes bullying because of my race. I did not have socio-economic privilege and connections. I have been dismissed or passed over for promotions. I have been belittled as a fat woman and have not been liked because I don’t glance down and apologize for taking up space. I don’t look the part. I have been othered for being quirky and different. I have been sexually assaulted and have been dismissed because I am a woman.
What I do have is white privilege.
Intellectually, I understand it. When dating my husband, I saw the missed handshakes and the invasion of space as if he wasn’t there. Even recently, when at a vaccination clinic, I noticed the elder white woman handing free masks out to everyone around us. Yes, the people on either side of us and in front of us, but she never approached my amazing husband.
Ironically, I have listened to several stories of my professor husband being pulled over by university police for driving through campus to our home-located directly across the street. I have been the recipient of jokes and sexual innuendo, fetishizing my husband and my relationship.
I have observed the difference in how my friends and family of color are treated when they enter a room, or when they simply dare to advocate for themselves. These instances frustrate me and generally I address them, but in days past, I chalked it up to ignorance and sought to smooth things over. While the situations may have been acknowledged and briefly railed against, I missed opportunities to dig deeper, to be uncomfortable.
I felt confusion as a child when I became aware of race and the absence of good people in my life. I was told I couldn’t see or play with friends of color and in no certain terms I was ordered not date interracially. In these instances I was defiant with intellectual anger, a sharp tongue, and the sadness of missed opportunities.
I had, however, never felt soul anger when it came to race. I felt sadness. I felt anger-yes. I had been self-righteous. This soul anger was different. This anger came from a legitimized fear for my son and husband. This anger settled deep in the pit of my stomach. It settled so deep because I realized I was part of the problem. My son tried to explain to me his experience. I acknowledged his arguments from a rhetorical standpoint, not from my heart.
I am witness to racism daily in my community. My husband and I live it as a couple. It was and is commonplace; it is something we expect. It is a matter of fact. It is eye-rollingly normal.
My approach to the world has always been about healing and about promoting love. How could my son heal and love when he faced situations like this everyday? How could my son feel peace when his mother didn’t listen to the pain behind the words?
My son never argued that ALL police were bad. He argued that he didn’t trust the police. He was talking about a system. A system that had racism built into the fabric of the institution itself. In that particular police team only one of the officers was aggressive. There was one officer that tried to make it better. He used a softer tone. While one was escalating, he was indirectly trying to deescalate. Like I had, he was trying to smooth things over.
I wonder about the conversation in the car following the incident. Did that young cop challenge his partner? Did he tell a superior what happened, or was he afraid, because there is a culture of not snitching or having your partner’s back regardless of damning behavior? I can tell you, it would have meant the world to my son if he had told his partner to stop. That may have changed the narrative.
This event happened less than 20 minutes after my conversation when I told my son how he needed to approach his mistrust of the police. He was revictimized. He was victimized by the police. He was victimized by me. I too was at fault. I had told him how he should see his treatment from a perspective of my white privilege.
I have never been spoken to in that tone by police-a tone that attempted to knock my son down a notch. A tone that shouted, “You are less than me!” A tone that taunted his, at that moment, powerless position. A tone that expected my son was a criminal before he uttered a word. This was all done while the bully held his hand on his gun.
What if my son had a black mother that night? What if his mother didn’t have the perceived power of a government job? What if he had been walking with a group of his friends instead of riding in a car?
I took away my son’s agency, the very thing I am responsible for building up and protecting. Instead of probing more, or asking for more specific details, instead of processing how this impacted his spirit, I asked what he thought as an intellectual exercise. I didn’t ask what he felt. I responded, but I didn’t really listen. I heard and processed his words, but I didn’t listen to the pain underneath his statement. I looked at the structure. I didn’t ask how this impacted him. I needed to ask about the specifics when he gave me general answers. I didn’t ask him what he needed to be done to feel safe and supported. I told him how he should react. I told him how to respond to a situation I have never experienced.
I will never be a black man in America.
Yes, I was angry with the police that night and I was angry at blind spots in systems and institutions. I was most angry with myself. Since that night I have seen it happen over and over again: an explanation by those with white privilege of how black and brown people in America should respond. That is the unspoken part of the problem. I was part of the problem.
Strangely, I am glad we were pulled over that night. I would give anything for my son not to have had that experience. I am not sure if he remembers the event in the same way. It will be a conversation the next time we have dinner. A conversation where I apologize for worrying more about making things better than really allowing him to say and feel his piece, if not peace.
I am glad the situation happened because it changed me. It didn’t change my politics or my intellectual arguments of being an anti-racist or of acknowledging inequity. It changed my approach. It changed how I see my role and my responsibilities.
Today, if my husband perceives microaggressions that I miss, I don’t smooth things over. When a black woman I supervised expressed she was dismissed by a colleague, I asked the question, “How did that make you feel?” I remember her surprise when she asked, “ Why does that matter?” I could say, “It matters to me.” I can create a safe space for real discussion where we really listen.
I can help to create a place to learn together even when it’s uncomfortable. I can provide academic research. I can bring my pain and anger from my lived experiences. I can bring love. I cannot, however, tell someone else’s story and manage their point of view. It is theirs. It is their journey. I can listen, learn and work as an ally.
What can I do? I can acknowledge my white privilege. I can apologize when I have a blindspot. I can behave in a way that makes people feel safe to tell me I have blindspots to begin with. I can continue to be an advocate. I can speak up.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I can now also identify with the anger and pain of a mother whose child is expected to be made less than his potential. I can ask the questions of my white brothers and sisters instead of remaining silent. I can also identify the anger and sometimes face the wrath of someone who subconsciously realizes they are part of the problem and can’t admit it.
That anger will end up in three ways. One, perhaps the most dangerous, will be discomfort that results in an avoidance of discussions of race altogether in self-protection. Perhaps one will use this anger to change the narrative, where he will become an ally and use his privilege to effect change. Or, perhaps he will become a martyr that had no privilege. He may become the defender of old habits and systems that displays his anger in self-righteous indignation clinging to the idea that his privilege doesn’t exist.
Silence and complicity often speak louder to those you proclaim to love than a raised voice. There is no greater anger than when you are a part of the problem. What can I do? First, I can LISTEN deeply and THEN I can start by owning my part and not being silent. Helping to heal doesn’t come from a place of comfort, it comes first from acknowledging and addressing the injury and the pain.